"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
During the Gulf War, Scott Ritter, then a junior military intelligence analyst, picked a fight with his boss. He filed one report after another challenging Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s claims about the number of destroyed Iraqi Scud missiles. We cannot confirm these kills, Ritter reported, much to Schwarzkopf’s bewilderment. Despite pressure from the top, Ritter, a Marine captain from a military family, held his ground, challenging his superiors and the establishment.
That was just a warm-up for the man the New York Times called “the most famous renegade Marine officer since Oliver North.”
In the years since, Ritter, who was chief inspector of the United Nations Special Commission to disarm Iraq (UNSCOM) until he abruptly resigned in 1998, has waged two battles — the first with Saddam Hussein, the second with the government of the United States.
As a weapons inspector, Ritter was Baghdad’s bête-noire, working with single-minded — some said overreaching — zeal to ferret out Iraq’s concealed weapons of mass destruction. In 1997, the Iraqi government accused him of being a spy and refused to let him into sensitive facilities.
In 1998, inspections by Ritter and his teams resulted in the most serious confrontation between Iraq and the United Nations since the Gulf War. The U.S. publicly stood by Ritter, but privately tried to tone down the confrontational nature of the inspections. Saddam expelled UNSCOM; Ritter, who was being investigated by the FBI on charges that he was a spy for Israel, quit in protest over what he described as Washington’s refusal to confront Saddam. (Many believe he was forced out of his post because the UNSCOM thought the U.S. had too much influence over it.) The United States ended up staging Operation Desert Fox, the largest military offensive against Iraq since the Gulf War.
Out of the intelligence game, Ritter became a vocal critic of the Clinton administration’s policy on Iraq. There was too much pretense, too much infiltration of UNSCOM by the CIA, no real effort to enforce the inspections regime, he charged. He became a nuisance for Washington and a blessing for Republican hawks. During 1998 testimony before Congress, Ritter was hailed as a “true American hero.”
But in 1999, Ritter confounded get-Saddam hawks who thought he was in their camp when he published “Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem — Once and for All.” In it, Ritter repeated his charge that UNSCOM’s mission had ultimately been compromised by Washington’s use of the inspections to spy on Saddam. But the bombshells were his assertion that Iraq was no longer a military threat and his call for the U.S. to quickly give Iraq a clean bill of health and lift its harsh sanctions, which he asserted were killing thousands of innocent Iraqi children. His solution: a Marshall plan to rebuild the country.
Ritter seems to have completely reversed himself regarding Iraq’s ability to acquire weapons of mass destruction. In 1998 he warned a joint hearing of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees that “Iraq will be able to reconstitute the entirety of its former nuclear, chemical and ballistic missile delivery system capabilities within a period of six months.” And in a December 1998 article for the New Republic, Ritter stated, “Even today, Iraq is not nearly disarmed.” Yet he now says Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are largely dismantled and pose little or no threat.
His turnaround has caused consternation, to say the least, among many of his former colleagues and current critics. “I have no idea what has overtaken him,” his former boss Richard Butler said. On another occasion, Butler said, “I’ll say this about Scott, either he’s misleading the public now, or he misled me then.” Ritter, however, insists he has been saying the same thing all along — people just paid attention to what fit their political agendas.
In a documentary, “In Shifting Sands,” which he describes as chronicling the weapons inspection process and attempting to “de-demonize” Iraq, Ritter makes the explosive charge that in 1998, Butler told him to deliberately provoke a confrontation with Baghdad as a pretext for a U.S. bombing campaign. Butler has vehemently denied the charge. The conservative Weekly Standard attacked Ritter and the film, pointing out that Ritter was allowed back into Iraq with approval of the Iraqi government to make the film. “U.S. intelligence officials and arms control advocates say Ritter has been played — perhaps unwittingly — by Saddam Hussein,” the Standard reporter argued. “‘If you’re Scott Ritter,’ says one arms expert, ‘the former “cowboy” weapons inspector, kicked out by Saddam Hussein, you’re not going to get back into Iraq unless Saddam Hussein invites you and wants you there.’”
Ritter, meanwhile, has denied that there’s any evidence connecting Saddam to al-Qaida — as writers such as the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg and the New York Times’ William Safire charge. And with Washington beating war drums against Iraq, it’s not surprising that few inside the Bush administration are in a mood to listen to a former arms inspector whose views on Saddam’s capacity to inflict mayhem appear to have experienced a 180-degree turn. But Ritter, a Republican who appears regularly on TV, is carrying on with his crusade to warn America against what he describes as a dangerous hard-line obsession with removing what he sees as a defanged old dictator. Salon spoke with him late last week.
When you resigned from your position as the chief arms inspector for Iraq, you were hailed as “the American hero.” What made you write your book, which in the end cost you the support of many?
If I kept silent about this, that would be a lie. I am a Marine Corps officer. We never operate outside our code of honor and integrity. The truth is paramount. This is not a nation that should be building on a body of lies. As the inconsistencies of consecutive American administrations’ policies on Iraq start to emerge, my position is starting to become recognized as a sound position. People start to recognize that much of what the U.S. has done has been outside the international law, outside the framework of United Nations Security Council resolutions, that Washington purports to support.
On the other hand, according to polls, over 60 percent of Americans are willing to go to war with Iraq.
I don’t care about polls — they are easily manipulated. I don’t care that 75 to 80 percent of Americans want to go to war with Iraq, that’s not justification for going to war with Iraq. That’s why we have laws in this land that prevent mob rule by people storming to the town hall and demanding that somebody be hanged. We should allow the due process [to work] in dealing with Iraq and all the facts to be placed on the table. But the facts are inconvenient for politicians who are pushing for war.
The argument from those who push for action against Saddam Hussein, including some high-level government officials, is that Iraq, with all its weapons, poses a serious threat. Are you saying they are lying?
Dr. [Paul] Pillar, the national intelligence officer [for Near East and South Asia] for the CIA, gave a speech at Johns Hopkins two weeks ago and said Iraq does not pose a threat to the United States, especially on a one-on-one basis, that warrants the use of military power in such naked fashion. If we act in the way the Bush administration wants us to act, that would put us outside of the international law, outside the U.N. charter and on a shortlist of countries that include North Korea when it invaded South Korea and, sadly, Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. That’s not a list I want my country on.
Unilateralism is a term [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld endorse. They are the unilateralists — they believe the United States has a unique position in world history. We are the beacon which the world will follow. We have a moral obligation to lead, they say, and if we fail to lead, the world will devolve into chaos and anarchy. This allows them to say things about Iraq. When people bring up that there is no international support, they say, “They will support us once we begin or once they see we are serious.” Well, maybe, and maybe not. But what I do know is that the coalition we put together to fight the war in Afghanistan is a legitimate coalition. When asked about what justification we have to go after Saddam, Richard Perle [chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel to the Pentagon] cites “self-defense.” That is, Saddam’s continued existence is a threat to the U.S. because of weapons of mass destruction and because Saddam might take these weapons and give them to terrorists. Although nothing in the history of past Iraqi actions suggest this. It is pure fabrication, but that is the basis around which Perle, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are working.
It’s hard to imagine Iraq as a harmless little country. In the ’80s it attacked Iran, turned on the Kurds, then turned around and invaded Kuwait — not to mention being a regional bully all along.
Saddam Hussein is a man who believes in his own version of regional hegemony. But we have to deal with facts. What is the Iraq of 2002? It has a pathetic army, a pathetic air force and an economy in tatters, destroyed by misuse, sanctions and the military. Its social infrastructure has been destroyed. It cannot project the kind of irresponsible behavior that happened in 1990. Iraq cannot project power. Economic sanctions have been responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million Iraqis. The devastation wrought on Iraq means that once Iraq can reconstitute its economy, there is a real chance of creating a new Iraq, a new social identity and a national identity built upon the concepts of economic stability — even if Saddam Hussein stays in power. The new reality in Iraq will focus on rebuilding the Iraqi economy.
This sounds like a fantasy. You know that no American president could suggest a rekindling of relations with Saddam, let alone lifting the sanctions, or the kind of Marshall Plan you are advocating.
That could eventually change. George Bush and his inner circle have betrayed the American people since 9/11. They are justified in their war on terror — we are obligated to do this — but they failed by taking political advantage of the upsurge of patriotic fervor to push for an extreme right-wing domestic, military and foreign policy agenda that has nothing to do with Sept. 11. John Ashcroft proceeded with some of the assaults on civil liberties. This is wrong and the American public will not fall for it for too much longer. I believe that Democrats are going to pick up on Iraq on this issue and start debating this issue. Once they take on the Bush administration on this extreme position, I think there is no choice but to endorse the kind of diplomatic engagement I am advocating.
You seriously believe Iraq will be the decisive political battle for Americans?
American people won’t buy this charade that is going on right now. Bush will be voted out in the next term. On Iraq, where is the threat? I challenge Perle, Butler, Wolfowitz or anyone to a debate about Iraq’s weapons programs. When you deal with facts, this kind of rhetoric no longer flies. This entire “Iraqi threat” is built on a framework of lies — a house of cards. The policymakers in the Bush administration continue to formulate policy in this never-never land.
Conventional wisdom says we are close to taking military action against Iraq. You don’t think Saddam’s regime is a threat that needs to be dealt with? What if a U.S. action ends up being short and sweet and a triumph for democracy in the Middle East?
If we go against Iraq, it will require extensive military power — more than the 75,000 [troops] that some claim. We are talking about 150,000 to 200,000 troops. Kurds and Shiites are saying don’t go after Saddam. There is no Northern Alliance in Iraq and the Iraqi army is not the Taliban. If we go into Iraq, we will have to go into densely populated areas, villages, farms. People will fight back. The army will fight. They won’t fight Saddam; they will fight against us, the invader, with thousands of deaths. We are talking about an unpopular war with no popular support in Iraq and going into Baghdad. Sure we’ll win — we always do. But it’ll never last. Central authority in Iraq will collapse. How long will the mothers of America allow their sons to patrol the streets of Baghdad with no end in sight? When we eventually run, Iraq will collapse. Turks, Iranians, Saudis will be making a move, and the U.S. will be fundamentally isolated in the region.
You sound pretty jaded.
The second a democracy views its citizens standing up and asking its government questions, the second that becomes an act of treason, we have a problem. Americans have forgotten what it means to be a serious functioning democracy. Democracy means being involved in the process, and not just nodding your head dumbly. We have a mass of Americans now that seem to view news as entertainment. That’s why they accept the statements at face value of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and others when they say, “We know Iraq has chemical weapons.” And it gets very difficult when Scott Ritter says, “Time out. This is a very complicated issue.”
But isn’t that a change of heart? Those were the same people who supported you. How did you arrive at your present point of view after being Saddam Hussein’s nemesis as the chief U.N. arms inspector?
I’ve been consistent throughout. When I resigned [from UNSCOM], I resigned in defense of the weapons inspections process. I spoke out against what I saw as a systematic failure of the international community to back up Security Council resolutions. I spoke out against Iraq, which continued to obstruct the job of weapons inspectors. I spoke out against the United States, which manipulated the inspection process for purposes other than mandated by the Security Council, namely, the collection of intelligence information against Saddam Hussein. I spoke out against Secretary General [Kofi Annan], for getting involved in a Security Council process. I spoke out against the Security Council for failing to effectively enforce the implementation of the law it set down.
All I am doing [now] is holding the mirror up to those who passed the law. I merely said you’ve put the law on the books, and the law isn’t being implemented. Therefore, you have an obligation to enforce the law. If you don’t want the law, then change it.
Still, many were surprised when a few years ago you wrote in your book it was time to get rid of sanctions and engage with Iraq, especially since as an arms inspector, you were criticizing Washington for shying away from confrontation with Saddam.
I haven’t changed, circumstances have. In 1998 I said the best way forward is to revive the legitimacy of the inspections, to get the inspectors back in, not to spy on Iraq, not to undermine the authority of Saddam Hussein. In other words, not to do anything other than what we were mandated to do: to disarm Iraq. In December 1998, the United States did exactly this. Acting under instructions of the United States government, Richard Butler [UNSCOM chairman] unilaterally dismissed the modalities for sensitive site inspections. Iraq was willing to accept inspections otherwise. But with no modalities, Butler opened the door for Iraq to say, you cannot come into this site. The United States bombed Iraq, citing this obstruction as justification. But of the over 120 sites struck by the United States in Operation Desert Fox, less than 12 had anything to do with UNSCOM’s mandate. The remainder were Saddam’s security, intelligence, military, and the vast majority were revealed as a part of the inspections process. So the U.S. corrupted and delegitimized the inspections process. You can no longer hold Iraq to a standard of 100 percent disarmament, to a [United Nations] resolution the U.S. no longer finds convenient to adhere to itself.
You definitely do not sound like a poster child for the hawks who want to topple Saddam.
I was not America’s poster boy when I resigned. Since 1991, I confronted the United States on an almost daily basis about the manipulation of the inspection process by American intelligence services. And I demanded that we retain the integrity of the inspection process. It was a very confrontational relationship. I was backed by Rolf Ekeus [former UNSCOM chairman] during the first six years of my work. However, when Richard Butler came in, he started to accede to the demands of Americans to interfere with legitimate inspection activity. I find it incredible that conservative elements in America say here is the poster boy. They picked me as a poster boy when they hadn’t a clue what they were endorsing. Once they figured out the complexity of the issue, suddenly it wasn’t as convenient as they thought it would be. I wrote papers between 1992 and 1997 that found that Iraq was largely in compliance, that we had achieved a 90 to 95 percent level of disarmament.
If you thought all along that Baghdad got rid of its weapons, what was all the fuss about? We kept hearing that inspectors were not allowed in certain facilities. We bombed Iraq over this. Even your book is a chronicle of what you call the Iraqi mechanism of deception — of Iraqis trying to obstruct the work of UNSCOM. Does Iraq have something to hide or not?
On the scientific and technical level, UNSCOM achieved a 90 to 95 percent level of disarmament. Qualitatively, Iraq is no longer capable of producing these prohibited goods — their factories, production equipment and the weapons themselves were largely eliminated. At the same time we found out that Iraq was carrying out systematic concealment activities designed to mislead the weapons inspectors. Most of this took place between the years 1991 and 1993 — in fact, we have very little evidence that anything took place after 1993. Ninety-eight missiles, and six operational launchers, entire biological [facilities], major aspects of the chemical weapons program including VX nerve agent production were concealed. In the end, rather than turning over programs that they had denied, Iraqis destroyed them, and all documents on this were hidden from the special commission.
We were investigating Iraq’s past concealment programs. By fall 1997, we were able to confront Iraq with a hard body of evidence that could not be refuted. They finally admitted, yes, there was systematic concealment from 1991 to 1995 by the special Republican Guard, and they identified the persons involved. But they said now there is no concealment program. We could not accept this at face value. We kept pushing and pushing and uncovered acts of concealment. But it turns out they were not concealing documents pertaining to weapons of mass destruction, but documents about the [personal] security of Saddam Hussein. It became this vicious circle — the more we distrusted the Iraqis, the closer to Saddam we got. The closer to Saddam we got, the more they evacuated material about the security of Saddam. We detected this evacuation and distrusted even more, leading to the cycle of confrontation that dominated our inspections from 1997 to 1998.
So you ended up investigating Iraq’s security system — not the stockpile?
What did directorate M23 [the Iraqi department of political dissent and the place that carries out assassinations] have to do with weapons of mass destruction? The answer is nothing. When you have a former Marine intelligence officer and intelligence officers from other countries, do you think Iraqis are willy-nilly going to let you run through these documents? No.
That makes it even harder to understand why you want inspections to resume. What can they possibly achieve under the circumstances? First, you don’t know what you are looking for, second the mistrust between Iraq and the international community makes it impossible to get anywhere.
I agree the inspections were a never-ending proposition and are doomed to fail if we try to reconstitute UNSCOM. It will never work because the Iraqis will never allow these inspections to have the kind of intrusive element that is required for absolute certainty that nothing’s hidden anywhere. And the United States will never fail to exploit that which gives [the U.S.] unique access to Saddam’s palaces and intelligence and security apparatus. So what I am suggesting is let’s have a mark of compliance [for disarmament]. Let’s say 95 percent is good enough — we don’t need 100 percent. Let’s just say Iraq is disarmed. Under U.N. resolutions, compliance means the end of sanctions, which is what Iraq wants, but it also triggers ongoing monitoring and verification. These new inspections would focus on monitoring of Iraq to make sure that it does not reconstitute its weapons capability. If we have inspections that focus on this, it could succeed. Because these inspections would not go into presidential palaces and the security zones. But as long as the U.S. demands that inspectors go into palaces, it’s all over.
But weapons are not the only problem Washington has with Iraq.
Look, if inspectors go into Iraq today, due to forensic capability, if Iraq’s done anything between 1998 and today, we would find it. But people refuse to do this. I am a proponent of qualitative disarmament, not quantitative. Stop counting the bombs, and start looking at the facts. Can Iraq produce the weapons and is there evidence of this? If the answer is no and we put an effective monitoring regime in place to make sure they don’t produce it, haven’t we disarmed Iraq? I say yes. But politically that is unacceptable. But it’s not about weapons, it’s about Saddam. And because it is about Saddam, all of my logic, my construct means nothing.
Unlike many Americans, you’ve met Iraqis and spent a long time there. For many, there is no face to this conflict except that of Saddam Hussein. Has knowing and meeting Iraqis shaped your position?
I’ve been with the highest level of Iraqi government [personnel] during my seven years. When people talk about the Baath Party, I know what this means. These are human beings. There are different power bases — the moderates, the conservatives, the liberals. When people talk about Iraqi intelligence, I have met everyone from the director on down — these are human beings. When people talk about the Amn El-Ammn, the gestapo of Iraq, I’ve met everyone from the their deputy director on down. I’ve been in their prisons, I’ve seen the horrors of them, but I’ve also seen that these are human beings. I’ve been in every special Republican Guard battalion. I’ve been in every Republican Guard headquarters; I’ve been in almost every heavy army division; I’ve been in the basic training camps; in factories. I’ve been up and down and all around Iraq. Iraq is a nation-state. I know its imperfections and realities. I had three assassination attempts on my life so I know what [Saddam's] capable of. And I have inspected the documents of [the directorate] for political assassinations. I’ve been to the children’s prison at Amn El-Ammn headquarters in downtown Baghdad. It was horrific; these are kids in jail under horrible conditions, sweltering because of the political crimes of their parents. Dad speaks out against Saddam, Mom goes to the women’s prison; the kids go to the children’s prison. And do you know what they do to those kids? I don’t even want to get to that.
It sounds pretty horrible — good reasons to push for a regime change.
I know the good, the bad and the ugly of Iraq. The idea of diplomatic engagement is not naive. I’ve been lied to by these guys; I know how bad they are, but I also know that you could do business with them. This isn’t a black-and-white comic book; this is reality. I can enter into an agreement with Iraqi officials, a life and death agreement that they will all adhere to. I know you can trust Iraqis under certain circumstances. They want a future. They want to live. And not just the average citizen; these are senior government officials. They have lives too. They have families, hopes and dreams for their children. We paint these guys as comic book characters. They are not — they are complex characters. With all the good, the frailties and imperfections that come with this. We do a gross disservice to them, to the world, to the American people by portraying Iraq in vague, inaccurate ways.
How about the moral argument in support of toppling oppressive regimes?
I just cannot accept the argument that we have to intervene to remove Saddam Hussein on moral grounds. To eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, and linking this elimination with economic sanctions — around 1.5 million Iraqis have died. We have killed almost six times as many Iraqis trying to eliminate weapons of mass destruction programs, than the weapons of mass destruction have killed in the entire 20th century. That’s a moral issue to me. We have to understand that if we wanted to act on moral grounds, we should have acted decisively in 1991. But by dragging this on for more than 10 years and making the Iraqi people pay the price, we lost the moral high ground. We have done so much wrong in the past decade that we missed our opportunity. It’s time to move on. If Saddam was rounding up and butchering 200,000 people, maybe. If Saddam was Milosevic carrying out active genocide, maybe. But that’s not the case.
Yet there are human rights activists and some policy officials who believe that Saddam’s past deeds are enough to indict him for genocide.
Saddam Hussein had a problem with the Kurds along the Iranian border — active involvement of Iranians threatening the dam providing hydroelectric power to Baghdad, threatening the oil field in the north. Saddam created a depopulated zone. He did it with extreme brutality. I’m not defending it; there is a big difference between that and genocide. The Kurds are an active part, 23 percent of the Iraqi population. There has not been a genocide against the Kurdish population in Iraq. There has been extreme brutality on the part of the regime in controlling the Kurdish problem. Even prior to 1991, Kurds had greater autonomy in Iraq than they have enjoyed anywhere else. This is never talked about.
There is too much mythology that has gone into the idea of Saddam. He’s a horrible man and has done horrible things. But he’s also done a lot of good things for Iraq. Iraq was brought from the Third World status in the 1960s to one of the most modern advanced states in the Middle East in 1990. Saddam brought education, medicine and suffrage to women in Iraq; [Iraqi women] can vote, go to work, get an education. This isn’t bad stuff. Saddam Hussein is a much more complicated issue than people like to admit. It’s not black and white and he’s not a cartoon character.
You’ve seen the ugliness from inside. You’ve become jaded by your experiences in Washington. Where do you go from here? Have you thought of running for office?
People have made very attractive offers. But I am not a politician. I am not saying, never. But politics is not attractive to me. I’ve seen Washington, D.C., and I don’t like it. I am afraid of what that process would do to me as a person and what it would do to my family. There are other ways you can serve. I’ve served in the military and I am doing a heck of a job for my country right now by adhering to my standards and my code of honor, to the concept of integrity, and by not being afraid to speak out on issues I have substantial knowledge of. I think I am serving my country the best I can at this point in time. I also joined the volunteer fire department in my community.
Asla Aydintasbas is a New York journalist. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times and other publications.More Asla Aydintasbas.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)